What Does it Take to be a London Leader Now?

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The Context

The performance of London’s schools over the last ten years in particular is a great success story. Within the ever-changing landscape London schools continue to excel. Pupils’ achievement has risen remarkably and is now the best in the country in terms of attainment and progress. There is a higher proportion of good and outstanding schools than any other part of England. Our schools do very well in every key stage from the early year’s foundation stage to Key Stage 4. This is helping young Londoners to reach their potential and make a positive contribution to society. However, there is no room for complacency and many challenges remain not least increasing the pipeline of high quality school leaders.

London is characterised by diversity and extremes of wealth and poverty, social capital and social cohesion, contained within very limited geographical areas across 32 boroughs and the City of London. In reality there are multiple ‘London’s’ not simply the inner city, suburban and outer London but many networks of urban villages and communities. London defies categorization into neat bands and schools typically have a diverse ethnic, social and cultural mix, many with high proportions of disadvantaged children. There are both opportunities and challenges for London’s leaders of schools:

Opportunities and Challenges

• The ethnic and linguistic diversity of pupils offers the potential for enriching the educational experience for all but may also act as a source of tension in some cases.
• There is a complex and variable range of parental and community expectations but good opportunities to engage and involve the community in education.
• There are great opportunities for teachers and leaders in London who can advance their professional learning and careers quicker than elsewhere but the relative high costs of housing and transport may act as a barrier to the recruitment and retention of appropriately qualified staff.
• There is the greatest concentration of social and cultural resources anywhere which enables schools to show their pupils ‘the very best that is’ but there are also socially and culturally impoverished communities.
• There is poverty and a higher percentage of free school meals especially in inner London, exacerbated by health and housing issues sometimes with excessive pupil mobility. But there is no poverty of expectations and a rich and varied economic infrastructure which ensures significant opportunities for employment and social mobility.

Given the intensity and range of these contextual characteristics it takes particular knowledge, skills and qualities to be a leader of London’s schools. London’s education leaders must counter social, economic and ethnic segregation; offer inclusive and equal schooling; and build the values of tolerance and community that can help to heal London’s divisions as well as foster its continued growth through the achievements of its children and young people. Contributions to various leadership surveys in London refer to the importance of understanding other cultures and communities, accessing public services and agencies and ‘political’ awareness. In terms of qualities, ‘energy’ and ‘resilience’ are the most quoted, together with the ability to inspire and motivate with courage, conviction and optimism. The overall evidence and literature of successful leadership in London point to the following characteristics:

Six Major Characteristics of London Leaders

1. Moral purpose – the foundation of successful leadership in London is a robust sense of moral purpose with an urgent and unswerving belief in the difference that education can make to children’s futures. This compelling and inclusive moral purpose drives the school forward, based on equity, social justice and unshakeable principles. The long lever of leadership in London is the most powerful tool we possess to raise the aspirations and confidence of London’s children and young people along with their communities. Professional knowledge and experience has to be backed by a determination that all children can succeed and London’s schools have always been the starting point of hope for disadvantaged children. London’s leaders are driven by the belief in the ‘transformability’ of pupils and communicate this with a powerful sense of advocacy, not only to their pupils, but to their staff and their community so that they take advantage of every opportunity to flourish.

2. Focus and clarity of vision – cutting through the complexities. This means an unremitting, relentless focus on the actions needed to deliver progress and success. London leaders set the climate and make the weather for their schools with a strong sense of optimism, whatever the external pressures, building a momentum for achievement in the widest sense, including closing gaps between groups of pupils. Leaders at all levels act in a way that is consistent with vision and values – values added and value added.

3. Holding the learning community of the school to high standards of performance and behaviour, reinforcing commitment and celebrating achievement, the better to rise to further challenges and improve on previous best achievement. Leaders support a culture of the highest expectations for all children in London shared by parents and their communities irrespective of race, class or wealth.

4. A high concentration on teaching, learning and assessment – seeing these as the processes from which opportunities are created and as accountabilities to society at large. This is core business that has to be got right and means applying and targeting appropriate pedagogies, spreading excellent teaching that challenges, stretches and drives attainment and progress for all children and young people. For a London leader the promotion of high quality learning is at the heart of the school’s endeavours – learning without limits is the goal and the aspiration is success for all.

5. Purposeful networking and influencing – tailoring key messages to many different audiences in the capital. Building alliances, investing in relationships, working with and through other leaders and partner agencies and collaborating effectively are essential for successful leadership in London. Leaders respond flexibly to different backgrounds and agendas, relishing diversity and understanding sub-cultures, but resolutely sticking to the highest expectations and standards. The school and its parents and community create shared beliefs about what they can achieve together, face up to the challenges and celebrate successes.

6. Open and connected leadership – London’s leaders have great opportunities for professional learning, accessing external expertise and leading learning innovation. They can take advantage of the existence of many organisations such as Teaching Schools, National Support Schools, Federations, Chains, MATs and collaboratives to develop both systemic and system leadership. The density of London’s schools, together with an excellent transport system, means that high leverage best practice can be disseminated very effectively whether through ‘excellence visits’ or working closely with other schools on issues of common concern. London has its own Leadership Strategy organisation run by Heads for Heads, as well as the Mayor’s office to stimulate thinking and creativity and provide leadership programmes and opportunities for professional learning.

Place, Pride, Purpose and Partnership To be a London leader now more than ever is a special opportunity working in one of the world’s greatest cities with colleagues with high levels of professional commitment and engagement determined to sustain London’s proud record of achievement in its schools. London’s leaders have a particular sense of PLACE and shared identity which is more than a local community or borough but a strong connection to the capital city as an entity. With this comes a sense of PRIDE in being a leader of a London school and part of a city-wide education service, celebrating the collective achievement of London’s schools, children and young people, demonstrating in particular that deprivation and disadvantage need not be destiny.

Above all London’s leaders have a strong sense of PURPOSE. They know that their service makes a huge difference to the life chances of their pupils and they relish the pace, excitement and intensity of working in such complex and diverse settings. They are sustained and supported by like-minded colleagues working in a range of PARTNERSHIPS in a real spirit of collegiality. To complement a sense of place, pride, purpose and partnership London’s leaders work with passion and pace so that they can make rapid progress.


London leaders are special because of their optimism, determination, energy, commitment and resilience. To be a London leader now does take enduring personal resilience, characterised by a sense of optimism and social justice, and a belief that change can and will happen and that life chances can be transformed. The challenges are great but the rewards are even greater. Leading a London school is an unparalleled opportunity to change thousands of lives; to lead a learning community that can take children and young people on a journey of discovery and development, and enable them to define their place in the world as global citizens within one of the world’s greatest cities.

David Woods
Chair of the London Leadership Strategy
July 2016

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